/ 21 March 2023

Cyclone Freddy leaves trail of destruction in Malawi

230313154513 01 Malawi Cyclone Freddy 0313
People line a muddy road in this image tweeted by Malawi Red Cross Society on March 13. Photo: Supplied

They describe mountains that roar, and rivers of mud and stone that destroy everything in their path.

The storm dumped the equivalent of six months of rain in just six days in Malawi. Some were asleep, woken suddenly by the sounds of angry waters sweeping through villages and towns, flooding offices and crop fields, destroying roads and bridges and basic infrastructure. Parts of the country are still cut off from rescue services, electricity and telecommunications.

For the people in the path of the storm, death and devastation is everywhere, even as they race to save the lives of people trapped in buildings or clinging on to trees.

According to Malawi’s department of disaster management affairs, 326 people had been confirmed dead as of Friday morning. Another 796 people have been injured, while 201 are still missing. More than 40 000 households have been affected and some 183 159 people displaced, many of whom are now living in 317 temporary camps.

These figures, the death toll in particular, are expected to rise when it becomes possible to reach more remote areas and when electricity returns to enable better communication.

Grace Kamanga, from Chilobwe, one of the hardest hit townships in Blantyre, the country’s commercial hub, spoke of how she woke to her world coming apart around her.

“We were woken up by a loud noise of falling walls on Sunday night. Our house was falling. Things happened so fast. All I remember is getting out as quickly as we could … then the screaming, everywhere. All we had were the clothes on us.”

Kamanga and her family found refuge in a primary school that has been hastily turned into a temporary centre for the displaced.

Others were less fortunate. Jailosi Lemani lost his wife and two children in a mudslide on the nearby Soche Hill. “Mud swallowed me and one of my children. It is by God’s grace that I am talking to you,” said the grief-stricken Lemani, still in his mud-stained clothes.

Outside Blantyre, districts such as Chiladzulu, Phalombe, Mulanje, Chikwawa and Nsanje reported tales of destruction. Whole villages and swathes of farmland swept away, leaving nothing but mud. Many people have yet to be rescued. Or their bodies recovered.

“I have never seen anything like this in my entire life,” said village head Mtauchila from Chiladzulu, east of Blantyre. “We grew up only hearing about mudslides. My entire village of over 400 houses has been washed away by mud. Many people have died, many others injured.”

He added: “Fields that had maize are not there anymore. I do not know what the surviving people will eat.”

Blantyre’s main hospital, the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, said its mortuary was overwhelmed. President Lazarus Chakwera has declared 14 days of national mourning.

Anger at an overwhelmed state

As the death toll rose, so did public anger and frustration. On social media, there were desperate pleas for help from affected villages, while the disaster management agency and the military were criticised for an inadequate response.

The scarcity of rescue helicopters, necessary to reach areas cut off from road travel, came in for particular criticism.

Malawi Defence Force spokesperson Major Emmanuel Mlelemba said that helicopters and other aircraft had been deployed, but that they were overwhelmed by demand.

The military of neighbouring Zambia sent two planes to assist with search and rescue operations.

“The level of devastation we are dealing with is greater than the resources we have,” Chakwera said in a televised speech.

On Thursday, he approved $1.5 million to be spent on recovery and relief services, and appealed to the international community for more support.

Amid the grief and national trauma, there have been plenty of moving stories too of heroism and kindness.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Malawians — both in the diaspora and at home — swung into action, using social media to organise relief for the affected, donating money, blankets and food. Schools and churches opened their doors to accommodate the displaced.

A new normal

Cyclone Freddy started off the coast of Australia, and swirled across the Indian Ocean for more than a month, before getting stuck and ricocheting between the island of Madagascar and the coastline of Mozambique.

It made landfall twice in each country, killing nearly 50 people. In Mozambique, the United Nations has warned that more than 55 000 people are at risk as heavy rains continue to fall, including in areas – such as the central province of Sofala – that were badly affected by Cyclone Freddy’s first landfall on 24 February.

The World Meteorological Association says Freddy is probably the longest-lasting storm ever recorded. It has also set the record for the number of times it has weakened and then re-intensified. (Storms pick up energy from heat and a hotter world means more energy to power storms.) And it now has the record for the most energy ever recorded in a cyclone, storing up as much as every storm put together in an average hurricane season in the United States.

Cyclone Freddy is the third destructive cyclone to hit Malawi in the past year, after cyclones Ana and Gombe, from which the country had not yet recovered.

“The previous cyclones severely damaged our water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure, along with shelters, all of which exacerbated the current cholera outbreak,” said epidemiologist Titus Divala. The cholera outbreak is the worst in a decade, and has already claimed 1 660 lives.

That storms will become more powerful, and deadlier, has been predicted by scientists for several decades. Industrial-scale carbon emissions trap heat in the atmosphere, warming the world and pushing more energy into things like storms. The Indian Ocean, which fuelled Freddy, is one of the fastest warming bodies of water on the planet.

In 2015, countries promised to do what they could to reduce carbon emissions and keep global heating to survivable levels. But last year, global carbon emissions hit record levels. In the past month, fossil fuel companies, from BP to Shell and Aramco, declared record profits, in the tens and hundreds of US billions of dollars.

In the US and Europe, the petro-chemical industry has known about the effect it has on the climate crisis for half a century and lobbied aggressively against any action to curb it.

This week Malawians paid the price for those profits.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.